Dazed & Confused at Farmfest

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Late last Tuesday afternoon I and around a dozen crop farmers emerged from the air-conditioned confines of the “Biofuture” trailer. Like abductees departing an alien mothership, we blinked in the bright hot light of a southwest Minnesota August. I looked around to get reacquainted with my surroundings: big tires, bigger iron, seed plots, debating politicians, a helicopter buzzing overhead. Oh, that’s right, I’m in the midst of the 2008 Farmfest, the state’s largest agricultural gathering. I’d just spent 20 minutes or so in front of a flat screen monitor being bombarded with messages about the future of farming as Channel Bio Corporation sees it. I was more than a little discombobulated. I wondered to the back of the show grounds to a shady spot where a one-man polka band was competing with the putt-putt of antique engines—after being inundated with so much of the “future,” I needed a little dose of the past to clear my head. I thought back to another Farmfest presentation I had seen earlier in the day. It consisted of representatives of sustainable agriculture talking about another kind of future. Being exposed to two such profoundly different takes on agriculture in the span of a few hours was a bit like shock therapy. But while sitting in front of the bandstand, something struck me: the difference between sustainable agriculture has little to do with technology, which is often used as the gauge—industrial ag embraces technology; sustainable ag shuns it, goes the conventional wisdom. No, it has to do with relationships—relationships between humans and technology, sure, but also relationships between farmers and the people they feed.

According to Channel, it’s one of the “largest and fastest growing companies in the American seed industry.” That’s probably true, considering it’s buying firms left and right. Formerly independent seed brands like Crow’s, Midwest Seed Genetics and NC+ are now part of the Channel family. Our “Biofuture” guide was a middle-aged man clad in the standard seed-company-employee-manning-a-farm-show-booth uniform: polo shirt and khaki pants. He informed us from the get-go that he has been involved with the seed business for a number of years, and over that time has witnessed many changes in agriculture.

“As you can see from the half-smirk, half-smile on my face, I’m still enjoying the seed business,” said our guide as he leaned languidly against a counter. “I like all the changes I see in agriculture.”

Really? You like all the changes? What about empty Main Streets? Mono-cropped landscapes? Rural America’s brain drain? I suspect that smirk has more to do with having a job that allows one to stand in an air conditioned trailer on a hot day showing movies.

Then came the video. It was clear from the start the themes were “future” and “change.” I could tell because floating around in every frame were double helixes, twisting and turning in slow motion. Everybody knows that the double helix is the international sign of change brought on by scientific progress, right? Well, judging by this video, helix-induced change is just about everywhere you look in the agriculture of the future: fields, labs, barns, tractors, offices, you name it—helix, helix, helix.

The video quoted experts from various aspects of the agri-industrial complex; most of them happened to be employees of Channel. Their message: all these changes being wrought in agriculture are making it more complicated than ever—exciting, but complicated. Now, more than ever, farmers need to build relationships with “input suppliers” like seed, chemical and biotech companies. The business has just become too complicated to make decisions on your own anymore.

It’s time to give over your decision-making to people who know better. At one point the video shows a farmer riding in a combine. The camera slowly pans down until you see he does not have his hands on the steering wheel. A global positioning system taking orders from outer space is doing the dirty work. The image was as subtle as a sledge hammer: just sit back and relax Mister Farmer, leave the driving to us.

No surprises here. This was a video produced by a seed company being shown in a seed company trailer by a seed company employee. It’s an input supplier’s job to convince farmers that the more decisions the supplier takes control of, the better that farmer—and a hungry world—will be. That’s just good salesmanship. But it’s not a sound basis for creating a sustainable food production system.

What troubled me were the images shown at the end of the video. Farmers were standing in their fields, talking about how they used to rely on their own decision making, but now things have just become too complicated. That’s why we need input suppliers as “partners” if we are to raise a crop, the farmers admitted sheepishly. That doesn’t sound like a 50-50 partnership to me. It sounds more like a signing over of the control of food production to entities that may not have the best interest of farmers or consumers at heart. Seed and chemical companies are in the business of selling inputs, not providing high quality food. Farmers are in the business of providing high quality food.

Industrial agriculture hasn’t made farming more complex. Quite the opposite: it’s worked hard to simplify, de-skill and McDonalize every aspect of it, from raising a crop of corn to pumping out pork, beef and milk. Make no mistake, the farmers out there on the land today, including the so-called “conventional” ones, are all highly skilled. But if industrial ag has its way, they will be the last of a breed. Smart, highly-skilled farmers, the kind that have served as the backbone of our country’s food production system, don’t make good “partners” for input suppliers. They think too much for themselves.

As author Michael Pollan has argued, biotechnology is a perfect example of how industrial ag has worked to de-skill farming. Biotech firms like Monsanto have taken all the years of agronomic, economicl and biological knowledge stored in farmers’ brains and attempted to package it in GMO seed. And now they’re selling it back at a dear price.

After the video, Mister Smirky pointed to a back-lit chart labeled “Biotech era: 1995-2007.” It showed how prior to the mid-1990s, corn yields tended to fluctuate widely, sometimes by as much as 30 percent to 40 percent. When biotech seed became widely available after 1995, the trends changed: corn yields have been on a steady, consistent climb. The message: biotech protects yields. An even deeper message: you farmers were doing a poor job of raising corn before we biotech firms showed you how to do it. How did you ever survive before Bt corn came along?

And on the other end of the showgrounds…
During the entire Biofuture presentation, consumers were only mentioned in passing, mostly in the form of a massive, faceless, expanding stomach to be filled with commodities. The image of consumers couldn’t have been more different earlier in the day, when I sat it on the “Entrepreneurial Insights” panel discussion. This discussion was held at the “Agripreneurship Specialty Pavilion”—basically a big tent full of groups and business representing all aspects of organic and sustainable agriculture.

The mere presence of this tent at Farmfest is a positive sign. This is the first time sustainable/organic agriculture has had such a large presence at an event that at times can resemble one big Monsanto commercial more than a gathering of farmers.

During the Tuesday panel discussion—held in a hot corner of the tent sans flat screen monitors by the way—representatives of the Land Stewardship Project, MOSES, Niman Ranch and the Animal Welfare Institute talked informally about the opportunities available in sustainable ag.

Like the Biofuture show, this discussion also highliughted about changes in agriculture. But unlike Channel and its fellow industrial ag firms, the Agripreneurship panelists see this change being driven not by advertising slogans and floating double helixes. They see farming’s future being determined by how well producers and consumers and create strong relationships, how well food with a face on it can become the norm, rather than a niche.

“There are tremendous opportunities in various levels of our food system,” said LSP’s Terry VanDerPol, who raises grass-fed beef in western Minnesota and works on creating local food systems in rural areas. “There are opportunities besides acquiring ever more acreage and more capital investment.”

“It’s a consumer-driven market,” said Harriet Behar of MOSES, referring to the demand for more food produced using environmentally sound methods. “You look at the system and fix the system rather than coming in after there’s a problem and using a synthetic solution. Consumers appreciate that.”

“It’s a trend…I don’t think it’s a fad,” said Sarah Willis of the Animal Welfare Institute. Willis raises hogs for Niman Ranch, a natural pork company that’s enjoyed tremendous success in recent years. “I’ve talked to several friends who are going to vote with their fork.”

Like the seed salesman at Biofuture, these folks were talking to farmers. But their message was much different: consumers want food that can be produced by people like you using your own smarts, hard work and creativity. You can’t do it alone, and that means partnering up with consumers, other farmers and even other entrepreneurs in the community. And these are true, 50/50 partnerships, not the lopsided kind industrial ag would like to see.

The equal partnerships required to create a sustainable food system are not easy to create. In fact, some might say they require relationships that are quire complex.

Telling it like it is…
One final thought on Farmfest: A person with nothing better to do could spend a week making fun of all the advertising slogans used to sell seed, chemicals and equipment at an event like this. But this week I did run into a phrase in the Garst Seed Company tent that wins the truth in advertising award. Their, emblazoned on signs and handout literature were the words: “Garst. Changing the Landscape.” Indeed, our corn and soybean duo-culture has helped make the Midwest one of the most altered landscapes in the world. Kudos to those honest copy writers over at Garst.

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